There is no doubt about it, the transition from school or work to university is one of the most difficult ones you have faced thus far. You have left where you consider ‘home’, free dental care and a giant “you have to go to sixth form/college/work or you will be expelled/fired”. For many of us, university signifies freedom. You’re an adult! Your responsibilities are greatly diminished! You are doing your favourite thing but a more intense version of it. However, it’s not always peaches and sunshine, and I know this first hand. Having scoured Twitter, I saw that many of my friends were asking for advice on how to university. Having asked a few people if they would like a definitive list of what you really should be doing from someone who didn’t get their act together until they were 21 and being told yes please, that would be helpful, I present to you a handy guide on How to Get Your Shit Together at University.
First things first, you’ve just moved in
Exciting right? You might have a fancy ensuite, you might be sharing a bathroom with five other people. You may be in a flat with all international students or you may be in a house share with people from the next city over.
It is okay to not like who you are living with. You were put together with Alex and his incessant guitar practise, Weird Lilley and I-go-skiing-every-winter-and-surfing-every-summer Tarquin. These people are not your best friends, that’s cool. But they’re not your enemies either. First thing you can do is accept this, there will be plenty of opportunities to make friends on your course and in societies later on. Just think of them as your neighbours, you would still say hello to your neighbours if you saw them in Tesco, so acknowledge these neighbours when you’re in the kitchen/living area together.
Ah yes, the kitchen. Home of stolen food, unwashed plates and mould. Keep your shit tidy. No one likes living with someone who is allergic to dish soap. If you are the tidy one and they are not? You have two options:
- Ask them to sort their shit out (nicely though, try “could you please clean your stuff because I need to use the sink?” as opposed to “clean your fucking mess, you fucking cockroach.”)
- Keep YOUR stuff in your room. Yeah, it’s not ideal having to traipse back and forth with your bowl to heat up soup in the questionably-clean microwave, but it’s much better than this going missing.
Someone is pinching your food? Confront the situation head on. But don’t do it like a dick. Instead of “who the fuck is eating my fucking bread?”, try “please don’t eat my food, I had planned to have that for breakfast/lunch/dinner/elevenses/second breakfast/snack.” If you are the person who thinks oh, it’s just a banana! They won’t mind! stop being a prick. If it’s ‘just a banana’, go to Sainsbury’s and get one yourself. No one likes a food thief, even if you pay them back, it’s still effort that they have to make to go and get that item of food.
Your neighbours are really fucking loud. Yeah, this is annoying. Poker tournaments until 4 in the morning with whatever the cool kids are listening to these days are no fun (when I was in first year, 7 years ago, it was Nero. I like Nero but I don’t like Nero at 3:34am). Do not do what I did and knock on the offending parties’ doors at 7am when you have to get up for lectures. You are going to win no favours. Instead, wait until you are back from lectures/you are in your communal space and air your problems maturely, like adults. Try “could you please keep the noise down after 11pm, I couldn’t get to sleep and it really screwed with my day.” You’re not saying never play Nero again, you’re asking a very reasonable thing for your housemates to adhere to.
The people you live with have no respect for your stuff. In my first year, my flatmates played tennis with my frying pan as the racket and a butternut squash as the ball (yes, really). I also came home to them using my colander as an ashtray. Yes, that’s right. The thing with holes in as an ashtray. Anyway, their brazen stupidity aside, I learnt to keep my things in my room. Sure, I used up precious space with all my utensils, but it was worth it once I saw one of my housemates spank his girlfriend with my wooden spoon.
You’re in the party flat and you are not a party person. Fucking move. Why stay miserable? You have the luxury of moving, so just do it. Someone may have moved out of a quieter flat and want a more ‘lively’ (read: hellish) flat. I can not stress how much I wish I had moved out of my flat.
If you really are not happy, move. I stayed in my flat out of principle and laziness (mostly laziness if I’m honest) and it meant that my first year living conditions were vile. I hated going back to the flat, I was depressed and anxious and all that other fun stuff you don’t really want to be dealing with.
Secondly, who do you want to live with next year?
Please, for the love of God, wait. I moved in with someone in my second year who turned out to be a sociopath. I mean, the warning signs were there, but I chose to ignore them because I was so desperate to have somewhere sorted.
There will be decent houses left by the time you’ve found someone to live with. I promise. There are not 50 good houses in the city and the rest are shite. Granted, you may not find a decent 8 person house after December, but ask yourself if you really want to live with 8 other people.
Can’t find anyone? No worries. Move in with strangers! I know what you’re thinking:
I lived with strangers last year and that was a shitshow.
Well, when people are looking for an extra housemate, you can read their bios, meet them before and view the house. You will know pretty soon if they are the exact opposite of the people you would be happy to live with. But if they’re so nice, why are they looking for an extra housemate? Plenty of reasons, to be honest. Their housemate may have dropped out of university, may have graduated, may have gone on their year abroad and the existing housemates want to keep the house, the people advertising a room may have really wanted that house in particular but need to find an extra person to fill it up. Besides, living with strangers can also be very refreshing. When I returned to university after my leave of absence (more on this later) I lived with one of my friends and three randoms. We were an incredibly happy house of 5 and lived in harmonious, mostly separate lives.
But how am I going to meet people?!
How have you met anyone in your life so far? You go to classes with them, you went to Beavers when you were six and struck up an intense friendship with someone who made an excellent hedgehog out of dried leaves, they were your mum’s friend’s kid. What I’m trying to say is you network.
Universities in the UK have this extra level of excellence where you can join societies matching your interests. I met some of my closest friends at university through the French Society, the Hispanic Society and the Russian Society. I know, it’s a non-stop party over here. I met some of my other amazing friends through some more different societies – the Pole Fitness Society or writing/illustrating for the university newspaper. The great thing about university is that you can kind of just think “yeah that looks decent, wouldn’t mind trying that actually” and you’ll meet someone else who thought of the exact same thing. Plus, for those of you who don’t drink, there are so many societies that don’t require you to get off your tits.
Similarly, be friendly to everyone in your lectures and seminars. Just, be nice. Smile. Discuss the fact that you weren’t paying attention to Spanish literature until your lecturer declared “and Pedro wanted Rosa to penetrate him with a dildo!” with your neighbour. No one was. It was a great bonding experience that you can all share and build upon for years to come.
So, we’ve got the social side sorted. What about the academic part?
Go to your fucking lectures. How I wish I hadn’t been so cocky. Lectures are not something you can sack off. Yeah, alright, I get it. Wednesday 9am, fuck that. But, Jesus Christ, no one is asking you to stick your hand up for every question. You will not get a good grade if you do not go to your lectures. I obviously thought I was pretty damn smart and thought “um, Fordism in France? Non merci, I am not going to that.” Funnily enough, I got a shit mark for Actualités and I deserved it for being so arrogant. I was not as smart as I thought I was, and intelligence can only carry you so far. Laziness will hold you back, and it held me back. Even if you aren’t prepared, go to your lecture, sit at the back and just see what you can take in. All you need is a pen and a notebook. It’s what, an hour? Two hours? You can do that. Reward yourself with something nice afterwards if it’s really a struggle to heave yourself out of bed in the morning.
In most cases, do your reading, please. For the love of God. It’s actually pretty interesting and if you are not interested in it, force yourself to like it. That’s how I started liking Russian literature. Apart from Gogol. I will never like Gogol. But I read about Dead Souls and Gogol’s weird kinky lifestyle so much that I handed in an essay on it and got a first. So, miracles can happen.
Participate. You will get more out of a seminar if you participate and don’t just slack off. Of course, we all have our off days, but try and participate in 70% of seminars. That 30% can be your ‘I have a cold/hangover/period pains’ slack off time. Lord knows we all need them.
Don’t choose drinking over studying. Although you may feel like a superhuman for getting in at 6am every Tuesday morning, you will screw up your sleeping pattern. Keep these nights for weekends and special occasions only.
Prepare your bag the night before. We’ve all had those mornings where it’s cold, you didn’t get much sleep, facing brushing your teeth is hard enough without the extra effort of packing your bag. Plus, you might forget something and then you’ll feel like your day has gone to shit and you’ll be unmotivated. Make a list of things you need. Stick them in your bag. Put bag on chair. Job’s a good’un. (If you’re feeling really organised, sort out what you’re going to wear tomorrow as well. Minimum effort.)
You are here to improve, not show off how smart you are. I came to uni with a massive chip on my shoulder. Due to undiagnosed Asperger’s and a less-than-ideal school (I know, saddest song, smallest violin), I didn’t actually make the grades to get in, but they let me in anyway. What good eggs. Anyway, I was so put out that I wasn’t ‘as intelligent’ as everyone else that I had a mild panic in my first year. Everyone is so much smarter, everyone is getting better grades, everyone went to a fancy school. None of these are true. I actually discovered that there were quite a few of us who quite didn’t make that golden ABB to get into Sheffield, and despite some wanker telling me that “I didn’t deserve my place” outside a nightclub in Fresher’s Week, everyone else literally couldn’t give a shit. Besides, you are at university because they saw something in you. They didn’t just take on people who could sit their final exams tomorrow and pass with flying colours, because what would be the point? Your experience at university should be focusing on growing as a person and improving.
Use those free hours! An hour between lectures may seem like a pain, but you can do a surprising amount in a hour. You don’t need a whole day to do some work, whip out your phone and do some Memrise if you’re a language student, read some of your course book if you do anything else. (I don’t know anything about other courses, sorry.)
Similarly, keep your essays that you get back. File them. Reflect on them. If I got a less-than-ideal mark, I would hastily shove that in a ring-binder and pretend it never happened. My pride was hindering my progress. Once I actually stopped ignoring the fact that I hadn’t got 100% and a comment at the bottom recommending that I join MENSA, I could look at my mistakes and learn from them. Most of it was “expand on this” and “is this relevant?”. Things that are easily fixable.
Talk to your tutors. I would like to shout out to Wendy, Amanda, Audrey, Adam, Dagmar, Liudmila and Mariana for practically holding my hand through some tougher times. If you are struggling with anything, talk to your tutors. One of the biggest wake-up calls I had was when Mariana sat me down with a bad Russian translation and told me that I should, in the nicest way possible, get back to studying grammar because this translation was not up to scratch. Because I had gone and had a discussion with her about it, she pinpointed exactly where I needed to improve and I wasn’t left floundering. On the other hand, I wholeheartedly believe that I got great marks in Russian literature because I went to see Adam in his office hours and discussed the books we had been studying in class on a more in-depth level. Your tutors want to help you, and they like talking about the subject that they teach.
But I also have to do other things! Like laundry and hoovering and dusting!
Let’s be real. No one fucking dusts. You can get rid of that right now.
Hoovering, yeah you should probably do this because if you’re like me, you lose a ridiculous amount of hair per day and it ends up in little clumps all over that scratchy tiled carpet. Laundry should definitely be done as you don’t want to have to go to an exam with your cleanest item of clothing that has spaghetti sauce on the front.
What I suggest doing is calling one afternoon your ‘household chores afternoon’. Say, for example, you finish at 2pm on a Monday. Make a list of all the chores that need to be done every week. I try and do mine all at once, and here are some that can help start off your own list:
- Clean bathroom (this is very easy, grab a bottle of that ‘all purpose surface cleaner for bathrooms’ or whatever and a sponge, spray liberally all over the bathroom, leave to work for like 10 minutes or however long it tells you to, grab the shower and HOSE THE WHOLE BATHROOM DOWN.)
- Clean room (clothes in laundry basket, clean clothes in cupboards, rubbish in bin, important papers in a pile to sort out later)
- Laundry (take clothes in laundry basket to laundromat, take a good book, put clothes in, wait for clothes, either put clothes in dryer or take them to dry in your room.)
That’s easy for you to say. You left university in 2016. I’m struggling a lot with my mental health because I’m poor as shit, exhausted and unmotivated.
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. There are certain things you can do to improve both.
SLEEP. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Do not torture yourself. Get the fuck to bed.
You can not drink as much as you think you can. Alcohol will not only screw up your liver, but when coupled with late nights and embarrassing stories, it can actually screw up your mental health too. Know your limits. If you’re with a bunch of wankers that are pressuring you to drink more, get yourself a Sprite and say it’s “vodka and lemonade”. Then make a mental note to pull away from assholes that shame you for not wanting to get shitfaced and depressed.
Pizza is not a vegetable. Those Dominos offers are great, but you should probably eat something a little more nutritious. I am terrible at cooking, but even I can make spaghetti bolognese with lots of vegetables. If you’re out at uni, look at getting a Subway. They’re relatively low calorie and you can sneak all that free veg in there. Also, apples and bananas cost barely anything. Munch on those and you’ll feel and look healthier.
Please budget. Do not end up like me and stressing out over the fact that you splurged all your loan on stupid things that you didn’t need or actually want, you just wanted to buy. Try this: “do I need this?” if you don’t, leave it. Think about it for a week. Do you still want it? Then go and buy it. I wish I had thought of this before I bought a guitar. I don’t know why I did okay? I am not musical at all. I learnt about three chords and never played it again. £200 (eek!) wasted.
Go to the doctor. If you are struggling with your MH, there is absolutely no shame in going to the doctor and being prescribed something. I’ve been on-and-off medication since I was about 14, and the shame of ‘taking’ something meant that I kept going off my meds, getting super depressed and anxious, and the whole cycle repeated itself. I’m on medication again and I feel like I can function like an actual human being. You can too. The medication takes about 2 weeks to work in most cases, but believe me. In two weeks, you’ll wish that you went to the doctor’s today.
When you feel like you honestly cannot do anything, just turn up. I know, I know. I said participate and go to your fucking lectures, but I know that that is not always possible. What someone told me, which I wish I had known at university, is that sometimes it’s enough to do the absolute bare minimum. Think of it this way, you feel shit currently, right? Well, you’re going to feel more shit if you enter a cycle of missing lectures and seminars. You will feel just as shit or slightly less shit if you go. I promise you.
Take a break. If you are really not coping, no one is forcing you to stay. That doesn’t mean you have to quit either. There is this wonderful grey area in the middle called a leave of absence. You would be surprised how many people take them. One of my friends took one because she just didn’t feel ready. I think that’s brilliant, that you can notice that you are struggling and be mature enough and confident enough to think “nope, need to duck out for six months, see you in a bit.”
My leave of absence was for a different reason. In my second year, I was bullied to the point that I was going to end it all. There, we put it plainly. It was fucking horrible. I wasn’t even a glamorous, depressed waif that cried silently into her pillow, I gained a fuck ton of weight, I was angry all the time and I called my mum up to say one final goodbye, when she told me to get the fuck out of uni and get back to Cornwall.
The University of Sheffield sprang into action and got everything sorted for me. I just had to sign some documents and I also had a 7 day period where I could call up and say “my bad, actually, I don’t want to leave, I made a mistake” and everything would be reinstated with minimal effort on your part. Obviously, I didn’t come back. I stayed at home, got some counselling, got a job, walked my dog a lot and sorted myself out so I could come back to uni in 2013 with a fresh mind and a whole load of confidence.
The one advice I will give you about taking a leave of absence that you should never, ever ignore: make sure you state explicitly what is happening to Student Finance and make sure they state explicitly what will happen to you, preferably in writing. I am probably on a list somewhere at Student Finance for the ‘heated’ discussions about them deciding they were going to stop my loan all together. (They didn’t, and the University of Sheffield hounded them for that, they were firmly on my side because it is the greatest university in the world.)
Similarly, being bullied at university is not unheard of. Bullies don’t stay in school forever. I thought there was something wrong with me, until my mum forced me to contact the Pastoral care team who said “ah yes, we’ve got another one of these cases”. It is more common than you think. If you are being bullied at university, it is always, always, always the fault of the perpetrator. And if you know anyone who is being bullied, please reach out to them. Being a victim of bullying, even as an adult, can be incredibly isolating.
Okay, thanks, I guess, but if you have all these hints and tips, shouldn’t you have got a first?
I fucking wish I got a first. Nah, I got a 2:1, but that’s all I needed and I am perfectly happy with that, as are most people. Hell, you’ll end up with a degree, no matter what you get as a final grade, and that’s what’s important. This guide isn’t a “how to get a first”, it is how to get your shit together when you have never had to think about these things before.